How Coaching Creates a Culture of Psychological Safety


In today’s rapidly changing organisational landscape, fostering a culture of psychological safety has emerged as a critical imperative for organisations seeking sustained success amidst uncertainty and disruption. Grounded in the ability to cultivate authenticity and encourage open dialogue, psychological safety distinguishes thriving organisations from those constrained by hierarchical structures and limited perspectives.

As industries undergo unprecedented shifts in operational models, leadership dynamics, and individual identities, establishing a foundation of psychological security becomes paramount for organisational and human adaptability. From navigating periods of contraction to embracing expansion, embedding psychological safety throughout all organisational tiers emerges as the most potent catalyst for fostering innovation, creativity, and resilience.

This article explores how coaching practices can be leveraged to create a culture of psychological safety, empowering individuals to thrive and organisations to excel in an ever-evolving landscape.

Psychological security as a competitive advantage

A culture of psychological safety, the ability to be authentic and speak up, is the difference between an organisation that will thrive and one that is limited to the potential of only a small subset of its most senior people. Across all industries we’re seeing unprecedented changes in operating models, changes in leadership, changes in our roles and sense of self-worth in an increasingly automated workplace. We need to build a foundation of psychological security to build human and organisational adaptability that will thrive in these times. Whether you’re shrinking or growing, in an era of massive disruption, building psychological security through every level of your organisation is the biggest lever you can pull for greater innovation, creativity and resilience as a firm.  

In this age, organisations’ and leaders’ ability to adapt, pivot and execute is the differentiator that will set them apart from the competition. These abilities are learnable skills on an individual basis, yet learning them as an organisation can drive exponential outcomes for your success. Mentors and executive coaches have been around since the dawn of the corporate era, but what if there was a way to amplify the benefits of one on one coaching and democratise the benefits of traditional talent programmes to unleash the potential of your entire organisation, and identify whole new legions of diverse talent?

Mentor – Coaching

Those of us who have risen to leadership over the past few decades will be very familiar with the practice of mentoring. When mentoring we provide our perspectives, share our experiences and give advice. Hopefully we have the courage to be vulnerable as we do so, and admit mistakes we’ve made in addition to sharing positive experiences. It, like much of our leadership, is directive – we give direction and others can choose to follow it or not, depending on whether it resonates. 

Coaching, on the other hand, is about suppressing the habit and the well worn neural pathways of directing, and instead enquiring. Being curious. Asking questions of the person we’re engaged with and understanding their perspective. Believing in their inherent potential to come up with their own goals and game plans, and helping them build a sense of self-efficacy along the way. 

Creating a culture of mentor-coaching and belonging through leaders role modelling these behaviours builds adaptable organisations. Psychological security is built when colleagues feel they are accepted as contributors to the culture, and that they are heard, without negative repercussions, when they speak up. Using questions to form a shared understanding of a challenge and to encourage colleagues to define and execute their own action plans, takes the pressure off leaders to “know it all” and results in the mentee-coachee building confidence in themselves, along with emotional resilience. 

Human Connection

At a time when tech is on the rise, we need to be even more human. To build a culture of psychological security, we need leaders who are able to switch between both courageous mentoring, sharing our own mistakes and therefore our biggest learnings, and conscious coaching, empowering those around us to build confidence. If we build the skill of curiosity, and fight our inherent biases to assume we understand the problem, we learn and expand our own worldviews, making us better leaders. For those we are coaching, intrinsic motivation kicks in. We’ve all been told “how to fix a problem” before and not been entirely convinced. Consider how much more motivated we are when we come up with the solution ourselves. How much more likely we are to pivot and adapt if our first idea doesn’t work out as planned. How much more proactive and adaptable we are likely to be in the future. 

By training leaders in the coaching skills of active listening, empathy, curiosity and facilitation, we are arming them with the tools to unlock the potential of their people without burning themselves out. By teaching leaders that the most valuable mentoring involves the courage of vulnerability and being open about prior mistakes rather than projecting perfectionism as aspirations, we set the foundation for psychological security. When leaders realise they are more respected for this courage, that they are recognised as humans, not simply “the boss”, it has a dramatically positive effect on their own mental wellbeing and, through contagion, that of their teams. Our people don’t do what we say, they do what we do. By role modelling vulnerability and active listening, leaders set the tone for a culture of genuine “speak up”, of psychological security. 

One of the quickest ways to remove psychological security in a social structure is to implement a hierarchy. A pyramid. Conversely, the way to distribute power and empower people is to create a construct of hyper-connected clusters across an organisation. By creating diverse groups in which colleagues peer-coach each other through challenges, an organic support network evolves in which trust and openness is able to flourish. With the tone set from the top, the skills of active listening, curiosity and compassion will permeate the layers of an organisation and become part of the culture. As team members connect on a more human level, a sense of belonging begins to grow. Combined with the role models of leaders’ openly sharing learnings and being human themselves, an unstoppable flywheel of psychological security will power the culture forward. 

For organisations looking to invest in organisational health, building a coaching culture and creating an organic support network of circles of trust is a surefire way to trigger positive contagion.

Making it systemic

None of this is rocket science, but without a structured framework, the right training and practice, and measuring outcomes, building a culture of mentoring, coaching and psychological security will remain an aspiration rather than a reality. 

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The coaching practice has its roots in sports. Coaches for the very best athletes don’t focus purely on performance on the pitch, track, or pool. They’re focussed on the whole picture. They help those they’re coaching set their own goals, and support them in delivering and/or adapting them. They help them build self-efficacy and resilience. They unlock potential far greater than their own. This ability starts at the top, and requires a degree of enterprise leadership and humility that hasn’t always been rewarded in legacy incentivisation frameworks. We are all social beings, and we are all the product of our environment. 

By starting at the top and fast following with peer coaching within the construct of circles of trust, organisations can accelerate the evolution of those frameworks to reflect the culture they are building. From a leader’s perspective, by shifting their approach to a practice of coaching their people they will build trust, motivation and resilience across the organisation that will become their legacy for decades to come. It becomes a win-win game. 

As leaders of organisations we then need to ask ourselves – are we incentivising enterprise leadership and a coaching culture, or are we incentivising a zero-sum game?

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